Image: Stories in photos can be very simple ‘bluetit spreading its wings and flying’.
‘A picture tells a thousand words’ – you’ve heard the saying, but do you pay attention to it? Do you consider the importance of telling a story or creating a message in the photographs you take?
In this article, I’m going to share with you what storytelling in photography actually means, what makes a good (and ‘bad’) story and tips to help your images have greater meaning, impact and interest to an audience.
You don’t have to be an experienced photographer to be a visual storyteller at all, you can learn to do it at any point, with any camera – in fact it’s better to master storytelling earlier in the hobby so it becomes a habit.
The idea of storytelling in photography is simply the art of creating an image with a clear subject that provokes an emotional or cognitive response from anyone viewing it.
Treat it the same way as a painting – what does the image mean? What is the artist trying to say by the way they’ve created the image? You have the same controls as a photographer to embed a message or meaning in your shots.
The term storytelling doesn’t mean your photo needs to have a 100,000 message buried in it. Most of the time it’s simple. It could be ‘man stood in the street waiting for a taxi’ or ‘the adventure of an insect crawling along a leaf’.
Stories and messages are short and to the point most of the time. But the more experienced you become as a photographer you may want to get complex and add in symbols and signifiers to create deeper meanings.
Image: Photos can tell stories of adventure or family. Photography by Rachel Sinclair.
A good photo in a story is one that is immediate and understandable. You only have a matter of seconds for an audience to look at your photo and decide whether they like it or not. That decision is based upon technical and creative factors I’ll outline later on for becoming a better photo storyteller.
If a picture has an obvious main subject (i.e. a flower, car, particular person) that’s a good start. Choose a background that is either subdued or complementary to the main subject.
For example, a flower with a blurred green background is more associated with the subject than a background of a car for example. Making the background and subject relate to each other adds another layer of interest to your story.
You can also subdue the background, make it plain, (for example a flower against pure black background) so it’s clear that it’s not important to the subject and therefore isolates it. Either way, it’s important to not overlook which type of background to choose.
Image: Use reflections or foreground objects to lead into the main subject without it being too distracting. Photography by Chris Sale.
Ignoring all the points I’ve laid out to ‘what makes a good story in a photo’ is basically everything that makes a story in a photo ‘bad’. I don’t mean it’s a ‘bad photo’ but it’s more likely to be less engaging, impactive or stimulating an audience.
Always keep in mind ‘What is the purpose of this image – Why did I take it?’. This is the most powerful question to ask yourself when it comes to composition and camera settings.
If you know what you want your image to be about then you’ll know what isn’t adding to that. Check around the edges of your shot to crop out or remove any distracting objects or colours. Sometimes you can’t remove it when you shoot, but you can in editing.
Only include objects in your photo that add to the atmosphere of your subject’s story. Don’t shoot aimlessly on a wide lens and include everything; be selective and purposeful.
Imagine taking a photo of someone in a red jacket but a great distance which includes lots of other people. It can be hard for an audience to know that the red jacket is the thing you want them to look at as there are lots of distractions reducing its impact.
This is where strong and precise composition comes into play.
Image: Above – What is the story of this image? (the dome, the statue or the grass). The light is highlighting different points of potential interest. In the image below, only the dome is clearly distinguished as the statue is more discreetly framed in the corner of the shot.
There are 5 things you can do as a photography to take photos with good stories, messages and clear meanings.
1. Keeping the purpose (main subject) of your photo obvious is paramount. That doesn’t mean putting clear space around your subject but instead using lighting, depth and focus to highlight it.
2. When get your subject in the light, and sharp and keep the background from being distracting, it naturally draws the eye towards that area. Getting all these technical elements correct makes it easier for your audience to know what the main subject is – but we’re not finished yet.
3. The next thing is to only put in your frame what adds to the story. Don’t be lazy and hope that audiences’ will overlook things for you and just linger on the subject. You have to be clear and concise as an author so no mixed messages are possible.
4. Use editing to enhance your story further. Add a little brightness, sharpness and vibrance where and when needed.
5. Ensuring your subject is the brightest element in your photo will help to draw attention to it faster. Avoid bright skies that become more dominant than your subject. If you can’t avoid this, make your subject a silhouette instead. Having your subject darker than a background is another way of creating visual impact.
Image: Is the taxi or the bus the story of this shot? One dominate through closeness to the camera, the other is brighter and more colourful creating a confusion for the viewer.
Image: Small subjects can be framed using the surroundings to isolate them to a clear area as shown.
Image: The person on the bench is darker and less colourful than the background – which is your eye drawn to most?
Any author of literature will tell you the key to telling a good story is knowing that story before you write it.
The same goes for photographers – know what you want to say with your photos before you press the shutter. Trying to decide afterwards with creative editing and extreme cropping will only create a mess.
Randomly snapping shots all the time may get you the odd photo with a decent message, but is it really intentional or the best possible version of that moment? Spend time thinking about how to frame and compose your shot and use lighting, depth and focus to enhance the subject for greater impact and audience reaction.
If you’ve enjoyed this guide check out our other articles below.